Is Hillary's Southern Firewall In Trouble?

Matt Vespa
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Posted: Jan 25, 2016 4:05 PM
Is Hillary's Southern Firewall In Trouble?

We all know Hillary Clinton is shaky in Iowa and New Hampshire. It’s possible she could lose both states, but still clinch the Democratic nomination due to her southern firewall. It’s no secret that Sen. Bernie Sanders (D-VT) does well with liberal whites. Iowa and New Hampshire have electorates that are whiter than Wonder Bread, but as we approach the Mason-Dixon line, the primary electorates become more diverse. I guess this is where the Clinton campaign plans to finish Sanders, who isn’t well known in the South. Is the optics of losing the first two early voting states bad for the presumptive nominee bad? Yes. At the same time, Mitt Romney lost two of the first three contests and was still able to nab the Republican nomination in 2012.

Clinton is beating Sanders handily in South Carolina (60/38), which holds their primary on February 27. African-Americans made up over half of the Democratic electorate in 2008 and their expected to repeat that level of turnout again this year. Clinton gets high marks with those voters. Yet, Sanders has been gaining ground in the Palmetto State, with some members of Obama’s campaign team saying that a Clinton win isn’t necessarily “inevitable” (via the Charlotte Observer)

It’s not as inevitable as people think it is,” Rick Wade, a senior adviser in President Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign, said of a Clinton win.

The key to Sanders getting better known among African-Americans is to push particularly hard for the votes of women, who tend to vote in bigger numbers, said Jaime Harrison, South Carolina Democratic chairman. “He has to visit every church and every beauty shop,” he said.

In the GOP war room, Rep. Jim Clyburn (D-SC) recently told NBC News’s Andrea Mitchell and Chuck Todd that Sanders' organization in his state has been improved, he’s doing better, and the Clinton camp’s firewall could collapse if there’s a blowout since, according to him, the former first lady’s organization can’t soak up that level of loss (partial transcript below):

REP. JIM CLYBURN: “Well, at the moment, this is a firewall for her. No question about that, she’s way ahead in South Carolina. But as happened in 2008, Iowa can change that dynamic very quickly. If it’s close in Iowa and New Hampshire, she could lose both those states and not get hurt badly; in fact it doesn’t even have to be close in New Hampshire if it’s close in Iowa. If it’s a blowout, I mean a 10 points loss—”

ANDREA MITCHELL: “In Iowa?”

CLYBURN: “—In Iowa, it would redefine the race.”

MITCHELL: “What do you mean by redefine the race?”

CLYBURN: “I mean South Carolina could do this year what it did in 2008.”

CHUCK TODD: “How’s her organization here? She needs it as a firewall, is it a good organization? Is it built for a firewall?”

CLYBURN: “She’s got a good organization, oh yeah.”

TODD: “Is it built for a firewall?”

CLYBURN: “Yes it is. But it’s not built for a blow out.”

TODD: “Very interesting.”

MITCHELL: “And how’s his organization here?”

CLYBURN: “Good. It’s much better than I thought it was two weeks ago. What I found since I’ve been home on this break is that he’s doing well.”

Cortney wrote earlier this afternoon that some local lawmakers like South Carolina State Representative Justin Bamberg jumped ship and endorsed Sen. Bernie Sanders, describing the self-described democratic socialist as “bold.” He also highlighted a few of Hillary’s weaknesses, that being she’s part of the Democratic establishment and she’s somewhat timid regarding policy advocacy. She likes to stay in the safe lane.

At the same time, when Sanders spoke to predominantly black audiences in South Carolina and invoked his days fighting for civil rights in the 1960s, it drew “lukewarm” reception, according to the Observer. These folks wanted to be talked to as any other American voter; the civil rights angle seemed to come off as pandering to some.

So, yes, Sanders is picking up steam. Voters are “feeling the Bern,” but let’s get back to reality for a second. First, the make-up of the Sanders coalition hasn’t been wholly transformed yet. It’s still mainly liberal whites, which means “the Bern” will wear off as projected back in July. Second, the delegate math definitely shows a Hilary firewall in the South (via Cook Report):

…98 percent of pledged Democratic delegates will come from states with lower shares of liberal whites than Iowa and New Hampshire. Just 447 of 4,051 pledged Democratic delegates - 11 percent - are tied to results in states or districts with higher shares of college-educated whites than New Hampshire. Moreover, just 13 percent of pledged Democratic delegates will be awarded in caucus states like Iowa, which as 2008 proved, tend to bring out more liberal participants than primaries.

In other words, if Sanders prevails narrowly in Iowa or New Hampshire, his support among liberal whites and in college towns - essentially Portlandia - would be entirely consistent with a scenario in which he also gets clobbered by Clinton nationally.

As Cook National Editor Amy Walter wrote last week, this race will come down to whether Sanders is Howard Dean or Barack Obama. While Dean fizzled in Iowa, Obama's Iowa win solidified his burgeoning popularity among white liberals but also legitimized his candidacy in the eyes of many previously skeptical African-American voters. But so far, there are few hints of a Sanders "expansion" constituency beyond liberal whites.

There's another gigantic Sanders math problem the Post failed to mention: thanks to Clinton's early dominance of superdelegates, he effectively begins the race eight points behind in the delegate count, before any votes are even cast.

Third, the Sanders campaign is saddled with a serious turnout hurdle, as their voter tend to be infrequent at best concerning past elections (via NYT):

As Mr. Obama can attest, you can turn out and win with irregular voters — and Mr. Sanders could prove to have the enthusiasm and organization needed to do the same. In one example, as Jason Horowitz and Yamiche Alcindor reported in The Times, the Sanders campaign has plans to send rental cars, vans and buses to carry students who are from Iowa back to their hometowns for caucus day.

But the scale of Mr. Sanders’s turnout challenge is unusually large. Compared with the supporters of Hillary Clinton, his are far less likely to report that they intend to vote; they have less history of voting; and they come from demographic categories who turn out in low numbers.

[…]

There are even questions about how many of Mr. Sanders’s supporters are actually registered to vote. He has not yet led in an Iowa poll that was conducted using data from voter registration files, the technique preferred by most campaigns but only occasionally used by media pollsters. All but one of the surveys using random digit dialing — a kind of poll that contacts all types of adults, including those who are unregistered — have shown a Sanders lead in the state.

The one poll using random-dialing that showed Mrs. Clinton ahead was the one from NBC/Marist, and it took the unusual step of matching respondents to the voter file after the survey was completed. That analysis found Mrs. Clinton ahead by 12 points among people who could be matched to the voter file, while Mr. Sanders led by nine points among those who could not be. (It’s possible that the Sanders backers were more difficult to match to the voter file).

It’s important to remember that voters can register on the day of the caucuses, so Mr. Sanders could overcome a voter registration problem on Feb. 1, caucus day. But the voter registration statistics from 2008 indicate that only a fraction of voters were unregistered before the caucuses. Turnout increased mainly because of voters who were already registered but had not previously participated in the caucuses.

There’s also the question about age:

In the Georgia and North Carolina primaries, where official data on turnout by age is available from 2008, registered black voters who were 18 to 29 were about half as likely to turn out as registered black voters age 65 and older. Similarly, young registered Democrats in North Carolina were only half as likely to vote as older registered Democrats (Georgia does not have party registration).

This is a huge challenge for Mr. Sanders: He is competitive because he leads by stupendous margins among younger voters.

[…]

Of course, Mr. Obama ultimately won the 2008 Iowa caucuses. He succeeded in mobilizing voters, and his supporters were probably so enthusiastic that he might have earned a strong turnout even without an effective ground operation.

We won’t know whether Mr. Sanders repeats his feat until the results come in.

So, will the wall come down for Clinton? It depends on the margin of loss. For now, it seems Sanders surely has momentum, but with a cohort of unreliable voters. As with other primary challengers in the past, he could lose, but leave Clinton battered and bloodied. Questions about her electability seem to be growing every time she’s either trailing or running neck-and-neck with the top tier of the Republican field. Then again, the increasingly devastating development regarding her email server could do that by itself, with many voters considering the former secretary of state as untrustworthy, dishonest, and painfully inauthentic. In all, the status of the firewall won’t be known for sure until after Iowa.

Nevertheless, Clinton is already making preparations for a prolonged duel with Sanders:

The focus on Iowa, which still haunts Mrs. Clinton after the stinging upset by Barack Obama there in 2008, has been so intense that even organizers in New Hampshire, which holds its primary on Feb. 9, have complained to the campaign’s leadership that they feel neglected.

On a call with supporters last week, Mrs. Clinton’s aides laid out a scenario in which the race against Mr. Sanders stretched through April, a prospect that they said would require about $50 million for a national ground operation and other expenses.

“It’s not just a question of the first two states or the first four states,” Mr. Mook said in an interview at Sunday’s Democratic debate in Charleston, S.C. “We’re going to keep going into the map as long as it takes.”

For all its institutional advantages, the Clinton campaign lags behind the Sanders operation in deploying paid staff members: For example, Mr. Sanders has campaign workers installed in all 11 of the states that vote on Super Tuesday. Mrs. Clinton does not, and is relying on union volunteers and members of supportive organizations such as Planned Parenthood to help her.

“It would be good to have the momentum story the day after the caucus of ‘Oh, Bernie won,’ ” Mr. Sanders’s campaign manager, Jeff Weaver, said, “but it’s really about grinding out the delegates, grind, grind, grind, grind, grind.”